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  • Jakub Koguciuk

The Painted Book: Illumination Revived

Jakub Koguciuk reviews Jonathan J.G. Alexander’s The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy

Study of manuscript illumination in the Renaissance appeared pronounced dead before it could bear any fruit. Erwin Panofsky, the founding figure of American academic art history, claimed that books painted by hand “begun to commit suicide” by emulating innovations in large-scale painting in the beginning of the fifteenth century. Finally, they “died of an overdose of perspective” in what used to be called the High Renaissance.

Despite this death by history of styles, illuminated manuscripts were produced beyond the middle ages. Some are objects of remarkable splendor. To take an extreme example, here is Giulio Clovio, the only illuminator featured in Giorgio Vasari’s Lives, illustrating Biblical episodes for Cardinal Alessandro Farnese’s Book of Hours:

The opening respects the standard format of the page by differentiating between the main pictorial field – a scene evoked in perspectival recession – and the margin, the area of decorative flatness and iconographic multiplicity. Clovio patiently and lovingly evokes the sacred scenes, and lets his fantasy run wild in the various statues and reliefs filling the margin. The spirit of Michelangelo is alive here, in the exaggerated definition of musculature and the twisted poses of the figures. Each body is heroic and could not be otherwise in the artistic scene after Michelangelo culminated the Vasarian history of art. The pages seem to pack the visual impact of the Sistine Ceiling into a more personal format. They preserve some of the grandeur of the Chapel, with its basic organization of space and pictorial effects, on a scale that lends itself to more private viewing.

For Panofsky, objects such as this one attempted to reconcile too much. A book needs to be flat, and it cannot convincingly engage in perspectival experiments without turning into something else. It is as if painting on such a scale cannot belong to our vision of the Renaissance. We associate the discovery of perspective and the rise of styles aiming at naturalism, whatever it may mean, with large-scale paintings, perhaps on a frescoed wall. If the achievement of the Italian Renaissance pictorial vision spans roughly from the walls of Masaccio to Michelangelo’s ceiling, then indeed it is hard to see manuscript illumination as anything beyond a conservative product of medieval after-life. In addition, monumental paintings turned Renaissance art into a matter of intellectual illusion. Theorists ranging from Alberti to Leonardo claimed that painting was a form of thinking, and therefore its value should be disassociated with the preciousness of materials. Against this, the Farnese Book of Hours contains simulations of various objects: some marginal images look at statues in niches, others like cameo reliefs. Rather than relegating art to the status of notional designs, Clovio delights at the possibilities of evoking various media. There is something hypnotic about these strange objects. Clovio is derivative, but he overwhelms with inventive energy. Surrendering to the impact of this image, the viewer finds immense richness in its exhilaration.

Jonathan J.G. Alexander. The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016. pp. $ 75.00

Jonathan J.G. Alexander’s The Painted Book in Renaissance Italy attempts to re-formulate the narrative neglecting such images by providing the first general view on the subject of “the painted book” in Renaissance Italy for the English-speaking  reader. The title is consciously inclusive, as the book aims to include manuscripts as well as printed material. The study is the fruit of a life of patient scholarship. Alexander wrote many articles on single manuscripts and particular problems in the field, collected in Studies in Italian Manuscript Illumination. He also co-organized Painted Page, the 1995 exhibition at the Morgan Library in New York that brought together many of the most remarkable Italian books in one display for the first time. It is hard to imagine a better guide to this material. Through his career, Alexander witnessed the incremental progress of knowledge on this period, and he has the depth and breadth of understanding to provide a clear synthesis.

The book is organized by regional schools in two large sections for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In addition to information about the major illuminations, artists, and patrons, Alexander discusses the evolution of scholarship on the various Italian regions. These provide convenient points of entry for the interested student, but these might have been expanded into full bibliographic essays, perhaps at the end of the volume. Even as they are, Alexander’s comments are great guides to scholarship on Renaissance illumination, which is largely Italian, and he is generous to future students by repeatedly pointing to specific manuscripts and collections in need of scholarly attention.

Dividing manuscripts into periods and regional schools means that key figures of the book appear and re-appear. Many artists worked in both centuries and travelled extensively throughout Italy. Bartolomeo Sanvito, the scribe and perhaps illuminator who made humanist script into a pan-Italian phenomenon, began his career in Padua, but made most of his precious manuscripts in Rome. Girolamo da Cremona, an artist who also travelled south, is as important for manuscript illumination in the Veneto as he is for Siena. Clovio was born in Croatia as Juraj Julije Klović, but worked in Venice, Rome, Florence and Parma. This permeability extends to patrons: Matthias Corvinus, the Hungarian king who seemed to have engaged in diplomacy through collecting manuscripts throughout the peninsula, is a constant presence in the book. The impression that regional divisions do not suffice is not a criticism towards Alexander, but rather evidence that this artistic landscape was extremely dynamic.

The last five chapters of the book cut across regional lines by addressing critical themes in the study of Renaissance illumination: the hand-decoration of printed books, patronage, text and image issues, the relationship between illumination and other visual arts, and finally the context beyond Italy. Any of these sections could serve as an appropriate conclusion of the book. As a collection, they present a tantalizing bouquet of un-addressed issues in the study of Renaissance books. As elsewhere, Alexander is careful and patient, often admitting that problems require further work. In certain sections, this reserve is even excessive. For example, it would be interesting to hear Alexander’s opinion on whether the painter Andrea Mantegna made any of the illuminations occasionally attributed to him. We have no firm evidence for this apart from stylistic affinities. However, Alexander’s speculation would be more valuable than most. Given that so much work that remains to be done, some of these final sections can only gloss through major questions. The international context seems an especially promising direction, as Alexander discusses only English patronage and the purchases made my Matthias Corvinus.

Figure 1. Giulio Clovio, Adoriation of the Shepherds and the Fall of Man: Opening of the Farnese Book of Hours, 1546. The Pierpont Morgan Library and Museum, New York, Ms. M. 69, fols. 26v-27r.

The curious imbalance between the two parts of the book – the regional survey and the five thematic chapters – illustrates the challenges of work in this field. From the first attempts to categorize Italian art, surviving works have been divided according to their place of origin. The nineteenth century gave us the “Florentine school” and the “Venetian school” along with a handful of others. This fits with a long-standing campanilismo in Italian culture, ranging from Vasari’s preference for his Florentine compatriots to the current regionalist policies of the Lega Nord. This intellectual framework conditions the organization of survey texts as well as most major collections. In large museums, Venetian paintings are hung separately from Florentine and Roman ones. This preeminence of regions mostly makes sense. Art-making in Renaissance Italy depended on local networks of painters and patrons. Many cities placed painters in guilds which regulated their craft by maintaining standards of training and production. Artistic success often depended on familiarity with local networks of power and patronage.

On the other hand, it is sometimes hard to say whether regional styles constitute parts of historical past or rather they are in themselves interpretative categories. In other words, we do not know whether for Leonardo da Vinci being a Florentine artist meant producing works with a precise set of stylistic traits. It also seems that some “schools” were simply more local and distinctive than others. Sienese artists up to the sixteenth century made paintings continuously re-engaging their local tradition beginning with Duccio and the Lorenzetti. Rome should surely be considered apart from this system. The wealth of the papal court attracted artists from many parts of Italy, and something like a local style of art did not appear until the Baroque period.

All of this is not properly Alexander’s subject, although questions on regions as intellectual criteria are suggested by the structure of the book, at once foundational and revisionist. The first chapters build up a survey region by region, guiding the reader through Italy in smaller units. The later part attempts to present a view on larger processes, at once integral to and invisible in the sections on particular places. Along with the wealth of insight and information, to provoke such considerations is one of the achievements of this study. A scholar of painting or sculpture in Alexander’s position would have a selection of previous surveys to rely on. The basic information about what happened where in Italian Renaissance art has been presented many times already. Hence, many books about better-known media can afford to be more critical from the get-go. Alexander does not have this luxury, and finds himself in a position of constructing many partial narratives at the same time. What could easily be chaotic turns out to be inspiring and judiciously presented.

This rich study has a handbook quality that will reward many readings and repeated browsing. It brings to mind Peter Humfrey’s Altarpiece in Renaissance Venice in the variety of collected material and synthetic breath. A reader who is not an expert in Renaissance illumination may quickly grow tired of the rapid succession of manuscripts, artists and patrons, many of who are still unfamiliar figures. In these moments, I found myself looking at the images, which must be among the most impressive collected in any survey of manuscript illumination. J.J.G. Alexander’s scholarly generosity and gift of synthesis will undoubtedly push the field forward.


Jakub Koguciuk is working on a dissertation on the rise of pastoral subjects in the art of Renaissance Veneto and Lombardy in the Renaissance Studies program at Yale.


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